On our annual Mexican road-trip inland, we were drawn to the beauty of the mesquite tree. The traveler sees twisted, crooked limbs, sharp spiteful thorns amid flowers looking like long spikes of yellow catkins and delicate feather-like leaves; as yet, seasonal pods have not matured. There is a delicate fragrance perfuming the arid landscape.
Mesquite (from Nahuatl mizquitl) is a plant found in Mexico and upwards through Southern US; some species are also found in Central and northern South America. It is a deciduous tree reaching heights of 20-30 ft; depending on the particular species and environmental conditions, it can exhibit more shrub-like tendencies than tree. With long deep taproots making it an extremely hardy, drought-tolerant plant, ranchers consider this a nuisance tree because it competes with rangeland grasses for moisture.
Native Americans relied on the mesquite pod as a staple in their diet; the bark used for basketry, fabrics and medicine. Today, the flowers provide a nectar source for bees producing wonderfully flavoured honey. It made, and continues to be, a significant element in the natural and cultural landscape.
As with the harvest of many raw resources in developing countries, the growing demand for mesquite as a cooking fuel is causing environmental and potentially economic problems. It is being harvested to fulfill the growing demand for mesquite charcoal. Mesquite charcoal burns slowly releasing a smokeless, rich-scented heat. Beyond its primary purpose as a cooking and heating fuel in Mexico, it is used to fire kilns that create roof and floor tiles. Critics claim that the production of mesquite charcoal is an issue reminiscent of Third World tropical rain forests. It is my understanding that Mexico acknowledges these pressures and environmental concerns and is attempting to take measures to manage this.
As a species used for woodworking, it is hard and dimensionally stable. Teak, mahogany and mesquite are equally ranked as the most stable hardwoods in the world. It is harder than oak and maple. Long-lasting, it can withstand heavy weight and moisture changes. I’m hearing that it is becoming the ‘new exotic’ of the US as various woodworking and trade associations encourage the sourcing of local, home-grown woods to replace those that have fallen politically and environmentally out of favour.
The good points of mesquite are endless and yet it has been a most feared and hated tree. Despite the past scorn of stockmen, many are coming to the general belief that is it too valuable to extinguish and yet too dangerous to trust unwatched. Having reviewed the historical significance of mesquite, and the pros and cons of its modern wood-working value, I’ll say that for us at West Wind Hardwood, we do not actively source or sell this mesquite.
Shrimp fishermen in the Sea of Cortez have long used mesquite in the building of their boats, and its past significance to Colonial Mexico can be seen today from carved church doors to range fence posts. Weathered and well-worn furnishings can be found for sale throughout Mexico. Jan certainly took an interest in both the wood-working skills invested in these fixtures, but also in the idea of incorporating them in our future home; the casa of our dreams. We are owners of property in Sayulita, Nayarit…… someday we hope to build our ‘go-to’ home in the sun. And after 5-years, we started the process by talking to a local builder and an architect in March.
The reason I choose mesquite for this newsletter was because I loosely relate mesquite with the current trend to use wood smoke to flavour our food. Admittedly, it may be a loose word association at best, but I remind you that we are entering what is long-hoped, well-earned hot summer for the Pacific Northwest; filled with the smoke of outdoor bar-b-ques amidst family and friends. Please refer to my earlier Newsletter #12 – August 2007 – Smokin’ Hot. Read about the many choices for wood chips; their taste values and what wood best lends its flavour to which foods. Find out which wood smoke is Jan’s favourite! And don’t forget our salmon boards. These too enhance the flavours of fish and poultry. Try them in both your oven and on your bar-b-que or grill.
“All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson